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Senate gives preliminary OK to election law clamp-down

By Craig Jarvis
cjarvis@newsobserver.com

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RALEIGH The state Senate tentatively approved a far-reaching elections bill Wednesday that includes requirements for voter photo identification, eliminates automatic straight-party voting on ballots and limits early voting.

The often emphatic and occasionally angry debate lasted several hours and stirred up deep-seated feelings about the country’s legacy of preventing women and minorities from voting, mixed in with stories from not long ago that North Carolina elections were once corrupted by payoffs and strong-arm tactics, and could still be compromised by fraud.

“We all don’t have the same life experiences,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, told Senate Republicans, who had bristled at the implication that the legislation was racially motivated. “We can’t pretend there’s not this history, there’s not this problem.”

Several senators, including Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican who represents parts of Johnston County, took offense that motives were being questioned, and the bill was being characterized as immoral and even “evil.”

“We’re going to try to slap a racist label on the idea that people are going to vote for the person, not the party?” Newton said, referring to the elimination of straight-party voting. “It’s somehow racist if we ask people to think who they’re voting for? It’s probably time to tamp down the rhetoric and get real about all this.”

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount, clarified that her criticism was not that the bill’s supporters were racist but that the bill would “have a negative racial impact.”

In the end, the vote fell along party lines 32 to 14. The Republican leadership decided to take a final vote on the bill Thursday rather than wrap it up Wednesday so that both sides felt it had been fully debated.

The bill will then go to the House, where Speaker Thom Tillis has said it would pass, as the session draws to a close for the year.

Although Democrats don’t like anything about the bill, they did manage to soften the blow by persuading Republicans to support an amendment that ensures early-voting polling places will remain open for a specified minimum and consistent number of hours. It also allows county elections boards to use private property for polling places if they can’t find publicly owned facilities.

Republican sponsors of the bill also agreed to include a requirement for a formal study on ways to improve access for the disabled and others needing assistance to vote, and report back before the 2015 session.

But that’s as far as GOP senators were willing to go, turning back Democratic amendments that would have restored a week of early voting, saved pre-registration by 16- and 17-year-olds, allowed straight-ticket voting and same-day registration, and permitted the use of college photo identification.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Archdale, said the bill would go a long way toward preventing voter fraud, despite the fact that little fraud has been reported in the state.

“If you don’t check it, you ain’t going to detect it,” Tillman said. “We don’t know how many there are. … Not a single soul will be disenfranchised. What it does is disenfranchise fraud, and a lot of people don’t like it.”

Bryant countered with charts and statistics showing that 80 percent of African-American voters and 45 percent of white voters cast straight-party ballots.

After the vote, six people were arrested in a brief sit-in in House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office. Shortly after 8 p.m., the group walked into Tillis’ office and said they wanted to ask him to stop the legislation in the House.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576
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